A maker’s tribulations in Africa
Published 16 March 2017 by David Rochelet
David Rochelet, having passed through the Electrolab in Nanterre, near Paris, France, founded the Doualab in Cameroon. First column from this French engineer convinced that Africa could become the largest makerspace in the world.
Life is made of choices. My name is David, I’m 31 and I live in Cameroon, a country in which I never thought I’d work and that I would even never have dreamt of visiting one day.
The first choice, difficult like all choices, I had to make once I obtained my ‘baccalauréat S’ (high school diploma in science). My results naturally predestined me to a preparatory class to get into a leading engineering school. But I met a BTS (advanced technician’s certificate) teacher like no other, keen, committed, and especially a skilled DIYer who had designed a large portion of the models present in the practical training room. This encounter was decisive: I submitted my admission application and enrolled in the BTS. Several months later, I joined, through this same teacher, the local flying club in Clermont-Ferrand (France) to take part in the construction of a plane, a nice little Jodel D113, of which the sanding of the cabin took me several days.
It’s during that time, in the middle of tools, workshop noises, veterans of the army talking technical from 7am to 10 pm, that I understood that what I enjoyed was doing things, seeing them emerging from my hands, not talking about it for years without doing anything about it.
I spent two years at this small flying club before having to leave it, sadly, to pursue my studies in the Yonne department where, obviously, I chose a work-study school in order to spend as much time as possible in contact with the machines of the Nuclear Center for Electricity Production in Belleville-sur-Loire, cathedral of technology of which I had been studying each recess with passion for three years. Steam circuit, civil engineering, diesel generators, alternator… all these elements skillfully assembled to produce electric current intrigued me. During my leisure time, apart from sport, I began to become rather gifted with computers, especially under Linux.
My engineer diploma in hand, here I was in another company in the Ile-de-France region, but very often wandering off in different European air traffic control centers. Machines attracted me, having to improvise so that trainings went well, by setting up configurations from scratch appealed to me much more than the long writing sessions of the reports necessary for the smooth running of the project. I was learning on the job, discovering a load of new fascinating fields and little by little I broke through in the world of logistics and IT.
From Linux to Emmabuntüs
This is when I met the founder of the Emmabuntüs project, which aims to create a Linux distribution to help volunteers of Emmaüs recondition computers. From there to building computers in jerrycans, objective of the Jerry project, there was only one step and this was for me the discovery of the Jerry clans in Africa, small maker communities recycling computers to fight against the digital divide.
At this period, also began for me the great adventure of hackerspaces with my arrival at the Electrolab in Nanterre. At the time, they were small premises barely a hundred square meters that we did up by carrying out renovation work at week-ends and salvaging equipment. I was literally spending my life there, all my time outside work. This place fascinated me, attracted me, was making me grow up as we went along making it nicer. Today the premises count 1,500 square meters hosting 200 members with projects in ten or so different areas. Even start-ups have settled in.
And then after four years, in 2015, following a trip to Liège (Belgium) at the French-speaking countries forum, my decision was quickly taken: after a few trips to Mauritania and Douala in Cameroon, I packed my bags to join my wife and found a consulting company. And of course attempt to set up a hackerspace, the Doualab (Douala digital laboratory) that I founded in 2016.
I have been discovering for nearly a year this country, its entrepreneurs, its challenges, its inhabitants full of projects although not very optimistic about the situation in the short term. This is the reason for this column: give this “tech” and maker ecosystem in Central Africa its rightful place on the world scene, show all these initiatives with people who fight each day to succeed in making them function in a lasting way. But also all this potential that could well make tomorrow’s Africa the largest makerspace in the world.